Nature in February: Early Bloomers

Suncups can be found in coastal prairie and grassland habitats like La Honda Creek Preserve (Lewis Reed)

Thanks to the Bay Area’s mild climate, wildflowers bloom here even in winter. Common trilliums (Trillium chloropetalum) and fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) flowers can typically be seen on the shady forest floors of Windy Hill and Thornewood preserves beginning in February. The bright yellow faces of suncups (Taraxia ovata) are also beginning to pop up in coastal prairie and grassland habitats like La Honda Creek Preserve. You can identify suncups by their bright yellow flowers with four spoon-shaped petals, and by their circular rosette of feather-shaped or oval-shaped leaves.

Not only do suncups brighten our late winter hillsides, but they are also a very cool example of evolution in action. Like many species of our coastal grasslands, suncups have probably evolved in environments with frequent disturbances such as periodic fire and foraging by large herbivores (such as the now mostly extinct megafauna of the Pleistocene). Sun cups thrive in the grazed grasslands of California’s central coast and exhibit some interesting characteristics that help them do so.

Rather than having points of growth at the tips of elongated stems like many of their close relatives do, sun cups have points of growth near, or even below the soil surface. This means that even if they get nibbled or stepped on, they can readily grow back. Also, their tiny-seeded fruits are born very close to the ground — which protects the next generation of suncups from being consumed by hungry grazers. These beautiful flowers are also drought resistant, thanks to their thick taproot which helps store energy during the dry summer months.

Without some sort of periodic disturbance, these coastal prairies would quickly turn into shrubland. Conservation grazing is one of the ways we can help maintain habitat for these species in an ever-changing environment.

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